When “High Expectations” are a poor excuse for callousness.

There are many forms of poverty – we tend to group them into “absolute” and “relative”. Absolute poverty offers immediate threat to life – it is where people lack the basics they need to survive in the short term – we see this type of poverty on our television screens all the time from drought or war torn countries. It is terrible. But relative poverty is also terrible – more of a terminal illness than a sudden death threat. People suffering from relative poverty live in prosperous nations and yet struggle to maintain what anyone might call a reasonable standard of living. They are more likely to get cancer, to die young, to end up in prison and suffer from abuse or violence.

Even within the realm of relative poverty, there are sub groups – the main two being generational and situational poverty. In situational poverty, circumstances have conspired to send the person or family into financial straits. This could be unemployment, long term sickness, immigration or the break up of a marriage. Parents who find themselves in situational poverty can often offer ways out for their children. They remember a better life and can shape a vision of what a better future might look like. They are more likely to value education and to sacrifice basics to ensure that their children are in correct uniform and have their equipment. They are more likely to understand how to make tiny budgets stretch and to know where to turn to for help. The children of these parents carry the same label as other children in poverty, but their chances of success are vastly improved.

Generational poverty, on the other hand, is far more tricky. In homes where there has been persistent poverty and sometimes worklessness over a number of generations, it is hard for any adult to be able to offer a child a vision of a different or a better life. Education is less likely to be valued. In this group there are higher levels of substance abuse, a higher chance of chaotic home lives and a sense of hopelessness. High levels of chronic stress are common in these environments and it is well documented that the production of cortisol in response to persistent stress inhibits cognitive function and memory. A perfect storm for any child.

Of course, both of these categories are roughly drawn and there are overlaps and grey areas. But they offer us an interesting question. To what extent are those schools claiming that their zero tolerance behaviour policies, their perfect uniforms, their insistence that every child should have the proper equipment with them, simply enacting a  form of social cleansing? They claim that their policies lead to higher outcomes for FSM children but I wonder if they simply filter out the problem kids and leave themselves with those most likely to succeed. The poor children of aspirational immigrant families. Or the poor children of those in situational poverty. The others can be permanently excluded in the name of high expectations. And that simply exacerbates the underlying social problem. Throwing these children out of school, or refusing to accept that they might need equity more than equality, is an abdication of responsibility.

There are catastrophic events in some children’s lives which most of us can barely even imagine. In this Youtube clip, Chris Kilkenny speaks of what it was like to move from council flat to rehabilitation centres with his addicted mother, to care homes while trying to “hide in plain sight” at school. When you listen to him, you must surely realise that punishing a child living under this level of stress for not having a pencil is not a sign of having high expectations, but of having an almost inhuman lack of empathy and understanding. What would it cost us to have a pot of pens in the middle of the table and to focus on the business of learning? Not a lot.

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7 thoughts on “When “High Expectations” are a poor excuse for callousness.

  1. But the Government, and many schools (especially those in favour with the Government) push a ‘zero tolerance’ policy. They justify it by saying poverty is no excuse. But, as you pithily point out, there are different types of poverty and such zero tolerance policies could subtly deter those in generational poverty.

    But these children have to be educated somewhere and they need dedicated, experienced, expert teachers. But teaching in schools where there is a large proportion of children in generational poverty isn’t attractive and could be career suicide. What is the Government’s answer? Parachuting in superheads who like to ‘make a difference’ quickly (eg by imposing tough rules about uniform and the length of rulers) before being parachuted elsewhere.

  2. I worked in an Inner City college for 11 years. There were some students who obviously were well fed & cared for. There were some who, equally obviously weren’t. There were students we (discreetly) fed & washed clothes for. And yes, we provided equipment when we needed to. I made a habit of picking up pens & pencils at meetings, training courses & anywhere else they were free. I would “lend” them out. I also gathered up abandoned ones at the end of lessons so mostly they were recycled. It’s not hard and while it may not encourage all to take care of belongings it did mean that nobody felt embarrassed for not having one. (We also lent out refurbished PCs for IT students who did not have one at home, though we didn’t provide – as far as I know- home Internet access)

  3. Thanks as so often Debra for providing the sprinkling of humanity. I am sure that there are some who will label comments such as these as, “making excuses” but these are rarely those who have every had to live with the pangs of hunger or the fear of having nowhere to live the next day. I had three months of homelessness once when a family member who was looking after, and supposedly paying bills in my flat, simply failed to pay and then flat was repossessed – the first I knew was when a large demand for the outstanding debt arrived, the family member had ignored all the other letters and I did not have the funds to pay this large debt. Luckily for me the kindness of friends meant I could “sofa surf” for a while. How would I have coped if this was before my exams, or if I had been 13 I do not know.

    I shudder at times at the “no excuses” culture we see from heads earning six figure salaries to politicians far removed from similar arenas. There is no simple solution but there is the place for compassion and this needs to start in a system willing to treat people as individuals not data recognising that different children need different opportunities and support. We move more and more to a one size fits all be this the “perfect uniform” (I know a school which has as part of its merit system the accolade ‘outstanding uniform’), the perfect pencil case, the perfect SPaG score, or the perfect GCSE profile.

    I see schools and systems which plot out perfect lines of progress and see children as data points on these lines – not asking questions about them as individuals. You are correct about the exclusions where available data indicates that academies exclude up to 70% more children than LA schools – though it is hard to get more recent data. This is also exemplified by comments from schools like Micheala Free School where children who do not conform are told they are not “Micheala sort of children”.

  4. Well said. Children should feel safe and secure. Schools have a responsibility to avoid making existing issues worse while the child is in school.

    I am amazed that some of these individuals choose teaching as a job.

  5. Thank you for this article, found it through Twitter somehow? I’m currently on my first placement for my PGCE year in a school that punishes children for not only not having a pen, but a ruler, protractor (even when not in maths lessons), a set of headphones among many other items of stationery and uniform. I have to comply with this system even though morally I don’t agree with it. I worked as a teaching assistant in an inner city school for two years and honestly did not mind spending a few extra quid on pens to lend out if it meant that children could get on with learning and not worry about having a pen because of their personal situation. High expectations in what you expect from pupils in terms of their learning are important, but I totally agree that in this guise, it can become punishment for the sake of punishment and shows a lack of empathy with the child who as a teacher, we are supposed to out first.

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